Press your space face close to mine, love
Never ones to take the easy route to work, Oxford’s finest have crafted their new album somewhere at the outer limits. Freaking out in the moonage daydream, Nick Kent. Illustration by David Cutter.
OK Computer (Parlophone)
A year in the making, the follow-up to their multi-poll-topping classic, The Bends.
Because it’s so damnably hard to pigeonhole effectively, you’ll probably be seeing the new Radiohead album described in all manners of half-hearted ways over the next few weeks. Some will glance at titles like Paranoid Android, hear what sounds like a Mellotron (but probably isn’t) swelling up on two or three tracks, note the strange song structures throughout, and lazily conclude that the Oxford quintet have decided to come over all prog rock, like some late ‘90s manifestation of early King Crimson. Others will hear the spacey mix and all those freaky guitars buzzing around and immediately think. This must be their ‘psychedelic’ record. But I can only imagine someone listening to it on hallucinogenic drugs having a pretty grim time.
It’s not punk rock, lad-rock, Britpop or grunge, either, and you can forget about ‘easy listening’ right now. There’s little that’s ‘easy’ about this record, little sugar coating on the pill this time, no temporary oasis of perfect pop escapism and calm to bury yourself in while you try to come to terms with the trickier stuff. Thom Yorke may be big mates with the lofty likes of Michael Stipe these days, and he may accept the odd prestigious music industry award standing alongside Brian Eno, but on this record, fame and success haven’t removed the considerable chip still weighing on his shoulders.
From the very outset of their career, Yorke and Radiohead have always taken a pride in their perceived status as rock’s rank outsiders. They’ve never belonged within any easy community minded groups, while their best known song, Creep, is as close to a definitive anthem for outsiders as has been written in the last 20 years. Now they’ve been allowed to produce themselves – and it can’t be overemphasised: the fact is, they’ve done a great job – Yorke and co have finally created their own little sonic galaxy, part enchanted planet, part outsiders club, with Yorke the ultimate anti-glamour rock star sneering and seething – often with tongue not altogether out of cheek, while his co-workers content themselves by performing some of the most ingeniously arranged guitar-bass-drums-with-a-bit-of-synth based music ever made.
Airbag has a stately but slightly tortured ‘lost-in-space’ feel, a bit like early Pink Floyd but more melancholy. The mix is alive with flanged guitars weaving among each other like snakes; “I am born again,” sings Yorke, but the abjectly mournful tone his voice elicits would lead one to feel this could be a curse and not a blessing. Next up, Paranoid Android is the frankly audacious choice for first single, so you’ve doubtless already been confronted with its deeply eccentric ‘plaintive acoustic ditty to paranoid screaming electric noise and back’ navigations, topped off with a sequence that sounds not unlike a bunch of pissed monks chanting in an abbey somewhere in the depths of Czechoslovakia.
Subterranean Homesick Alien counters Android’s giddy changes by being a slow, beautifully languid piece led by a jazzy electric piano that features one of Yorke’s most beguiling vocals to date as he sends out a touching message of comfort and sympathy to alien life-forms trapped discontentedly on this planet. It helps to know that Exit Music was written for the close of Hollywood’s recent grunge re-styling of Romeo And Juliet. Lyrically, all hell is about to break loose, the song’s heroine is having trouble with her breathing yet the music moves at such an eerily calm pace it feels as if everyone – singer and musicians – are on the verge of losing consciousness.
Let Down is the album’s one potential anthem-rocker, full of luscious chiming guitars and a haunting melody that could easily charm its way into the higher regions of the international singles chart. Then things swiftly turn weird and ugly again with the arrival of the vindictive Karma Police. “That ‘s what you get/When you mess with us,” Yorke snarls/sings by way of a chorus, but the slightly turgid rhythm makes you wonder whether he’s being malicious or just being ironic. Echoes of White Album John Lennon are well evident here, specifically the somnambulist lurch of I’m So Tired and certain of the chord changes of Sexy Sadie.
Electioneering is the full-tilt anarchic rock bash-up and sounds like a splendidly warped deconstruction of dear old Alice Cooper’s School’s Out. On the edgy Climbing Up The Walls, Yorke takes a detour onto Tricky’s turf with a claustrophobic trip-hop vibe and distorted vocals before bringing in the rest of the group to return the sonic thrust closer to the guitar-based heart of Radioheadland. No Surprises is the other potential hit here: an enchanting guitar ballad – somewhat in the vein of the Velvets’ Sunday Morning – this could be Radiohead’s very own Losing My Religion. Lucky you probably heard on the H.E.L.P. benefit album a couple of years ago. As haunting as ever, it fits in here perfectly as an extended melancholy farewell alongside The Tourist, the remarkable last track. Deep slow, deeply soulful – just beautiful.
What does it all add up to? Certainly a record to which the adjectives “dour” and “dense” seem particularly appropriate when hearing it the first few times. Because there’s so much going on here it can get a bit hairy in the beginning. It opens up quickly enough, though, and once you’ve been hooked, it never stops growing on you. Better than The Bends? Probably. Record of the year? Conceivably. Others may end up selling more, but in 20 years time I’m betting OK Computer will be seen as the key record of 1997, the one to take rock forward instead of artfully revamping images and song-structures from an earlier era.
Thom Yorke tells Jim Irvin how OK Computer was done.
What was the main imperative when you went into make this album?
“The main imperative was to have complete and utter freedom.
“We were sort of nostalgic for the time when Jonny and I used to do 4-track stuff. Do it when we felt like it, go round his house, write a song, tape it and fuck off home. That’s what we were trying to do here. That included producing it with Nigel Godrich – who we’d done Talk Show Host and Lucky with. He’s our age and the same mindset. We spent a ridiculous amount of money buying gear because we wanted to set up our own studio and take it where we wanted. We said to Nigel, ‘Write out a wish list of all the equipment you could possibly want and we’ll go and buy it.’ And we did. I think he thought we were mad.
“You know Jona Lewie? We bought this incredible plate reverb off him, this huge old box that broke down every time we moved it. But that was very important, everything went through it.
“The Bends was like a huge confidence boost, but we were trying to deal with the fact that [this time] everyone was interested in what we came up with. We thought, We’re just going to do what we want, make mistakes, just put that energy into it. Liberating, but also terrifying, because you’re taking on all the responsibility. I can’t blame ANYBODY for any aspect of what’s going on, because we’ve been maniacally controlling as much of it as possible.”
You knew that you could work this way because you’d recorded Lucky in me hours for the H.E.LP. album...
“Exactly. We get bored very quickly but we also respond to a moment realy well, get the song down and then can’t ever do it again. After that it’s a cover version! That’s what we found with No Surprises. We’d bought all this gear, put it together and it was literally the first time everything was plugged in and ready to use: pressed the button, the red light comes on and that was No Surprises. The take on the album is exactly how we played it, bar a few small fixings. But we did SIX different versions of it afterwards – ‘That bass line’s not quite right and this, that and the other’ – being anal. We went back to that take in the end because we’d discovered that it’s about catching the moment and fuck whether there’s mistakes on it or not.
“We’d been listening to Ennio Morricone and Can and lots of stuff where they’re abusing the recording process. We wanted to try that. We were coming at it from complete ignorance, though, standing in front of some beautiful digital delay going (makes manic knob-twiddling motion and accompanying noise) and Nigel’s going, ‘Oh, fucking hell,’ until suddenly everyone says, ‘That sounds great!’ And that’s what we’d use. It’s children with toys. You don’t really know what’s going on but you’re digging all the lights. And usually, when it sounds good, something’s broken!”
Do you come in with complete songs or are they worked on by the group?
“They’re worked on. I’ll come along with something or Jonny will, but it’s basically chaos a lot of the time. We did lots of fussing with [this album] because we had time. We had too much time. I’m sure we could have got it together earlier. It took a year.”
“No. In front of red lights, only about three months. The rest was agonising about it, trying to forget about it, rehearsing it or rewriting it.”
Listening again to Pablo Honey, it’s amazing how unrecognisable your voice is and how it sounds like you’re searching for one; every vocal is different. Did you work on your singing between that album and The Bends?
“No, I just got some confidence. Pablo Honey was like a demo: ‘Three weeks, don’t worry about it, no-one will hear it, it’s our first album’ ...and then so many people bought it. We were still forming and didn’t have any idea what we were doing.”
Can you remember a moment, then, when you thought, This is my voice, I’ve got something here that I like?
“Fake Plastic Trees. (Pauses) The one reservation I had after The Bends was that it didn’t matter what I was singing – ‘Fish and chips or whatever’ – it still sounded melancholic. It was frustrating, I didn’t feel I could write certain songs because they didn’t fit with this voice – the one that I’d ended up with. So I spent a lot of time on OK Computer trying not to do voices like mine. The voices on Karma Police, on Paranoid Android and on Climbing Up The Walls ore all different personas, though actually it’s not blatantly obvious. But it was something I was acutely aware of.
“I didn’t feel any need to exorcise things within myself this time. It wasn’t digging deep inside, it was more of a journey outside and assuming the personalities of other people. I think Lucky, the lyric and the way it’s sung, is really positive, really exciting. No Surprises is someone who’s trying hard to keep it together but can’t. Electioneering is a preacher ranting in front of a bank of microphones. It’s like taking Polaroids of things happening at high speed in front of you and doing an impression of it...”
How are people going to consume this album? It’s not something they’ll bung on when they fancy a laugh, is it?
“Well, no. When we started, I really wanted to make a record that you could sit down and eat to in a nice restaurant, a record that would be cool and be part of the furniture. But there’s no way you can eat to this record! You have to sit down and stop doing whatever you’re doing. You can travel to it. You can sit on a plane. You can probably drive to it. I don’t think you can really do the housework to it.”
I get the sense of travel. The Tourist is a key track for me. It reminded me of a space walk.
“Really? Wow, cool. You can make the video! To me it was... see, I have certain days when my mind is going so fast that I just can’t control it, and it’s locked into that speed and it’s going to go forever. The Tourist is a sort of prayer to make it stop.”
But it’s very languid. There’s a drift to it.
“It’s a drift in the face of things around it being manic. Like the calm inside a fast moving train. Someone told me that their little child, whenever she gets on a train, thinks the stuff going on through the window is television. So she gets on the train and watches television and then walks off and she’s somewhere else, and she can’t figure it out. I thought that was right.”
Is there a key song for you, one that when you’d finished it formed the mood of the album?
“Lucky as well. We did that, as you said, in five hours, and I took it home and played it and I cried. I think it was because we’d been on the road for a while and we were really comfortable with each other, and it expressed the excitement and happiness that we felt. It was written around the time that we first met R.E.M. and everything was changing shape, exciting and yet terrifying. And that feeling was there all the way through the record. Exit Music, though, was the first performance we’d ever recorded where every note of it mode my head spin – something I was proud of, something I could turn up really, really loud and not wince at any moment.”
When do you tend to write? What state are you in?
“Agitation. Panic. Paranoia... On trains, walking around, at home, everywhere. The Bends was less like that, it was some guy on the back of a tour bus getting drunk and feeling really quite upset! This has been much more about absorbing what’s going on around you when it’s most potent.”
Do you ever worry about the limits of the form, wish you could do something other than songs?
“During The Bends I think I did. I felt I had to be like a tortured artist. I don’t feel like that any more and it’s fantastic. To me, pop songs will always be the most powerful way of saying anything. I’ve no intention of doing aural soundscapes, or whatever. It’s not gonna happen.”
What are your touchstone songs, the ones that do it for you every time?
“I’ll Wear It Proudly, Elvis, Costello; Fall On Me, R.E.M.; Dress, P.J. Harvey. A Day In The Life, too. I always find myself referring to that.”
How you mention it, I can see some of that song’s atmosphere in your stuff...
“Mmm. Things changing quickly, quite violent mood swings. And I like the way that Lennon reports that song as a witness.”
So that’s the way you were writing on this record?
“Yeah. A lot of it was that approach. (Recites, dreamlike) ‘I’m standing here and I’m watching and I’m going to write it down, that’s the only way I can deal with it. I’m not even going to say anything about it, I’m just writing it down.’
“Say, on Electioneering, for example. What can you say about the IMF, or politicians? Or people selling arms to African countries, employing slave labour or whatever. What can you say? You just write down ‘Cattle prods and the IMF’ and people who know, know. I can’t express it any clearer than that, I don’t know how to yet, I’m stuck. That’s how I feel about Day In The Life, Lennon was obviously stuck and said, ‘I’m going to write a song because I’ve got to get this down’ and it’s everything that he didn’t say by doing that... That was what I dreamt of doing on this record.”
Who are the singers you admire?
“Scott Walker, Michael Stipe, Elvis Costello – I like the way he’ll go from singing in a completely neutral, detached way to being really violent and alarming. P.J. Harvey’s the same. She’ll deliver a [verse] and then switch.
“Some time ago, over the period of a month we met both R.E.M. and Elvis Costello. Just to stand in front of Costello and talk to him was enough for me, like a major step, a closure of a certain thing. I can’t explain it properly, but it was empowering. And then to go on tour with R.E.M. and see people who were still really into music after all this time and after all this bullshit, it chokes you. It was important to us to see that. Whether that sounds crass or not, I don’t give a fuck.”
Do you ever think: Blimey, I’m in this great band, I’m doing what I want, the dream came true?
“Yeah. (Laughs) That’s why I wrote Lucky.”